The King's College

Memory eternal: Was there a moral compass at the heart of Tom Wolfe's best journalism?

Memory eternal: Was there a moral compass at the heart of Tom Wolfe's best journalism?

I was a journalism major in the first half of the 1970s, an era in which -- even at Baylor University -- everyone who wanted to be a journalist was reading Tom Wolfe. I even dreamed that Wolfe would venture down to Waco and write the definite magazine piece on just how crazy things really were in Jerusalem on the Brazos.

Even in the Bible Belt, Wolfe was the essence of hip, cutting edge journalism. Of course, everyone assumed this also meant "liberal," whatever that word meant back then.

As you would expect, his writings returned to my radar during my graduate work in 1981-82 at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Then there was a lull until the explosion of criticism of his reporting/fiction in "A Man in Full" and "I Am Charlotte Simmons." 

As I read press reactions to those novels, something hit me: Some of the gatekeepers in elite American media were truly afraid that Wolfe might, well, have a moral and cultural point of view that was guiding his sniper-like attacks on American culture.

Oh. My. God. Might the man in the white suits be some kind of "conservative"? Should these books be read while listening to Bob Dylan's acidic, countercultural work on "Infidels"? Was Wolfe a heretic? Hold that thought.

My task here is not to criticize or even to summarize the many, many Wolfe obituaries and tributes that are -- with good cause -- being published right now. I recognize that it takes genuine chutzpah to try to write about Wolfe, or even to write about other people writing about Wolfe. The subject is just too big, too colorful and too complex.

So right now, I would simply like to make a few observations about the articles in The New York Times and New York magazine. After all, everything begins and ends with Wolfe (a transplanted Southerner, of course) and the city that he stalked for half a century, decked out in the white suits that he called "Neo-pretentious" and “a harmless form of aggression.”

Let's start with a symbolic fact about Wolfe's life. The Times noted:

He enrolled at Yale University in the American studies program and received his Ph.D. in 1957. After sending out job applications to more than 100 newspapers and receiving three responses, two of them “no,” he went to work as a general-assignment reporter at The Springfield Union in Springfield, Mass., and later joined the staff of The Washington Post.

How many people finish a Yale doctorate and then head straight into an entry-level job on a newspaper city desk?

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Can New York City survive Chick-fil-A invasion? Let's look at Manhattan history!

Can New York City survive Chick-fil-A invasion? Let's look at Manhattan history!

On a personal note: I just finished one of my two-week sojourns teaching journalism at The King's College in New York. As I have mentioned before, if you add up my various duties here I live in lower Manhattan just over two months a year.

I'm not a New Yorker, but I hang out with them a lot -- even in local diners and fast-food joints.

Anyway, at the end of my final seminar session last night one of the students gave me a thank-you card and the perfect gift to sum up life in this neighborhood right now.

It was, of course, a Chick-fil-A gift card.

Don't worry, I will be able to use that card in Oak Ridge, Tenn., even though our town has only one Chick-fil-A sanctuary, compared to New York City's three (with more on the way as part of the much-discussed Bible Belt invasion of the Big Apple).

The bottom line: If was the perfect end to the week. And you will not be surprised that we also talked about the now infamous New Yorker sermon about Chick-fil-A -- "Chick-fil-A’s Creepy Infiltration of New York City" -- during this week's "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in.

In my GetReligion post about this whole kerfuffle ("The New Yorker stirs up a storm with analysis of Chick-fil-A evangelism in the Big Apple"), I tried to avoid -- for the most part -- some of the most common themes in the Twitter madness about this piece. Here are three of the more low-key, constructive tweets from that amazing storm:

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'Snake news': Pope Francis takes on 'fake news,' without asking some crucial questions

'Snake news': Pope Francis takes on 'fake news,' without asking some crucial questions

There he goes again. Pope Francis has jumped into another crucial issue in the public square, one involving everyone from the New York Times DC bureau to Fox News, from Facebook to Donald Trump's White House spin machine.

We're talking about "fake news." The problem, of course, is that hardly anyone, anywhere, agrees on a definition of this omnipresent term.

Fake news as in tabloid-style coverage (or worse) of mere rumors, acidic political fairy tales and outright hoaxes?

Fake news, as in screwed-up, mistake-plagued coverage of real events and trends?

Fake news, as in biased, advocacy journalism about real events, whether in shouting matches on talk-TV or on the front pages of elite publications?

Fake news, as in reporting based totally on anonymous sources, leaving the public in the dark on the motives of those providing the information? Waves of news from journalists who basically say, "Trust us? What could go wrong?"

Fake news, as in news that partisan leaders -- in government and in the press -- simply don't like and want to see suppressed?

So what are we talking about here? Here is the top of the Los Angeles Times story on the "snake news" blast from Pope Francis:

Pope Francis has brought a biblical bearing to the global debate over fake news by condemning the phenomenon as satanic and saying it began in the Garden of Eden.
In a document released Wednesday, Francis claimed peddlers of fake news use "snake tactics" and "disguise themselves in order to strike at any time and place." Francis pinned responsibility for the start of disinformation on the "crafty serpent," who, according to the Bible, "at the dawn of humanity, created the first fake news."

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A word from Australia: Rural voters ruled 2016, but journalists should keep an eye on ...

A word from Australia: Rural voters ruled 2016, but journalists should keep an eye on ...

As you would imagine, I am still digging through stacks and stacks of emails and (digital) news clips in the wake of the Election Day earthquake and the news-media meltdown that followed. You don't even want to know the size of my email in-box right now.

While doing that, I came across a think piece on the election results -- from Australia, of all places -- that contained a useful typology that journalists might want to study. This is especially true for reporters who are sincerely interested in what happened with American evangelicals, especially those in predominately white congregations.

It helps to know that the author of this piece. the Rev. Michael Bird, is an Anglican priest and theologian, linked to Ridley College in Melbourne, who also blogs and writes essays of this kind for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The bland and rather wonkish headline on this particular piece was: "US election: Why did evangelicals vote for Donald Trump?"

The key to the piece is that this is not the question that interested him the most. The heart of the essay focused on another question that should be more interesting to journalists: Who are these Americans who everyone keeps calling "evangelicals" and leaving it at that?

Early on, Bird notes that he was in Houston during the GOP primaries and delivered a lecture attended by quite a few conservative Christians.

I began my talk by asking three questions: Why don't Americans use the metric system? Why is the cheese orange? And who are the evangelicals who are voting for Donald Trump?
I got a response of riotous laughter because just about everyone there supported Ted Cruz and hoped a local Texan would defeat the vulgar New Yorker. I asked the last question because, among my hundreds of American evangelical friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, I could count all of the Donald Trump supporters I knew on one hand.

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Talking Trump & God, in a tall building in the Big Apple that Trump doesn't own

Talking Trump & God, in a tall building in the Big Apple that Trump doesn't own

So are you had your fill of talking about God and Donald Trump?

I realize that I wrote an "On Religion" column for the Universal syndicate about the alleged armies of evangelicals who think The Donald is the candidate blessed by God to get this nation back on the path to something or another, something EPIC, something GREAT, again.

Then we did a GetReligion podcast on this subject (click here to listen) and then I turned around and backed that with a GetReligion post offering more background. It was all pretty shameless.

Then I came to New York City to spend two weeks teaching at The King's College, the home of the rebooted version of the full-semester student journalism program that I ran for years in Washington, D.C. We are at Broadway and Wall Street and, thus, around a corner or two from, you got it, the Trump Building in lower Manhattan.

Right, but there hadn't really been a GetReligion-linked exploration of Trump and God that included lots of '70s dance music and one-liners. In other words, early this week I hopped on the R train and headed to the Empire State Building to spend an hour with my friend Eric Metaxas on his national radio show.

Want to listen? Click right here.

This was right after Metaxas -- a very funny man in a Yale University sort of way -- bombarded Twitter with all kinds of jokes riffing on what the Bible would sound like if Trump had written it.

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Moving day: Back home at GetReligion.org

Moving day: Back home at GetReligion.org

So, here we are once again -- back home at GetReligion.org, where Doug Leblanc and I first pitched camp more than 10 years ago.

As I explained in the exit post at Patheos, this whole week is going to have a kind of Christmas in July feel to it. Why is that?

Well, we have been working on this move for a long time, a very long time -- since the last month or two of 2013. It's hard to move a website from a commercial, very complicated website like the Patheos hub to a completely different platform. Our decade-plus archive contains millions of words and thousands or hyperlinks, images and comments that you want to bring with you.

So the goal was to make this move (cue: drum roll) back on our 10th anniversary -- which was Feb. 2. That was technically impossible, for reasons that we don't have time to discuss. 

Thus, this week is going to have a kind of Christmas in July, 2nd of February on August the 4th sort of feel to it. Does that make sense? 

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Same as it ever was: It's time for a new, old GetReligion

Same as it ever was: It's time for a new, old GetReligion

You know that whole Christmas in July thing, when stores and other groups have fun by, well, pretending that it's Christmas, only in the month of July?

That is kind of what is going on here today. Kind of.

The big news is that GetReligion.org is going back to being GetReligion.org -- period. This website has, over the past decade or so, gone through three basic transformations in its platform and layout and now we are headed into No. 4.

We are returning to our status as an independent website that wrestles with issues of religion-beat coverage in the mainstream press, linked to The Media Project and, in a process that will evolve over the next year, to my future classroom work with The King's College in New York City. The key institution at that prime lower-downtown location is the college's new John McCandlish Phillips Institute, which is led by a New York City journalist named Paul Glader, who is justifiably well-known for his years of hard-news work with The Wall Street Journal. If you are not familiar with the byline of the late and very great New York Times reporter John McCandlish Phillips, please click here and then here.

The key to this fourth GetReligion move is that we are, first and foremost, a journalism website -- as opposed to being a site that fosters dialogues and debates (valid ones, at times) about religion and religious issues. As such, our turf is rather different than the many excellent blogs that have flourished here in the digital universe called Patheos. We think it is time to link up with projects, old and new, dedicated to journalism education.

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